Micro-Plants Yield Pharmaceutical New Wave

June 04, 1998

Compounds with anti-cancer properties and potential for use in new generation antibiotics and nutritional supplements have been found in tiny marine plants around Australia's coastline.

Microalgae - single-cell marine plants at the base of the ocean food chain - produce a range of biochemicals with exciting potential, say researchers.

Australian microalgae are genetically and biochemically different from microalgae found in oceans elsewhere, says Dr Susan Blackburn of CSIRO's Collection for Living Microalgae.

"That means that while our microalgae may look the same, it does contain unique compounds with the potential to solve future needs for drugs, including anti-cancer agents and urgently-needed antibiotics," says Dr Blackburn who has been investigating the properties of microalgae for 20 years.

Dr Blackburn said the two year project is part of a national collaborative super-project called the "Bioactive Molecule's Initiative" involving six CSIRO Divisions, encompassing the strengths of CSIRO biotechnology with a major focus being marine biotechnology.

The recent discovery of these biologically-active compounds in certain Australian microalgae highlights the potential for a new biotechnology dimension for Australia's oceans, she said.

"Australia's oceans are immense, and while we are beginning to understand more about its physical conditions and the large creatures that live in it such as whales, dolphins and fish, there is a vast array of life at the microscopic level that is not well understood at all."

"Yet from the few microalgae that have been studied, compounds with significant human health benefits as pharmaceuticals - anti-cancer, antibiotic and improved heart function drugs-have been found."

"These tiny plants are unique packages of all the components needed to support life, and are therefore a tremendous source of untapped biochemicals with health benefits and wealth-generating potential. There is no reason why our oceans cannot deliver to the world the same rich contribution of pharmaceuticals as that made from the plant life of the Amazon Basin."

Humans have been extracting drugs from plants on land for thousands of years, and many of today's drugs are plant-derived, yet the potential of the ocean's plants is only now being discovered, she says.

The CSIRO Collection for Living Microalgae holds over 700 species of microalgae in the collection, which is the largest of its type in Australia and one of the largest in the world. Dr Blackburn estimates there could be thousands of different microalgae in Australia's ocean territories which, at 16 million square kilometres, cover twice the size of the nation's landmass.

Microalgae from the collection is presently used throughout Australia in the formulation of crucial live feeds for young aquaculture species such as oysters, prawns and abalone.

The human health benefits of microalgae are a relatively new development, with only about three microalgae species being cultured for nutriceutical production internationally, supplying large markets in Asia and America. Australian manufacturers are also supplying the nutriceutcal market with betacarotene and other compounds derived from microalgae.

"Given the large number of species of microalgae in the world's oceans and the very few being used for their pharmaceutical, nutriceutical and other properties, microalgae are a very under-utilised resource world-wide," she says.

"The microalgae component of the CSIRO Bioactive Molecules Initiative combines a unique natural resource with leading edge biotechnology which allows novel chemicals to be modified or synthesised from compounds found in short supply in nature."

Research will investigate the potential of microalgae as a source of compounds to combat key human health issues such as malaria and viruses.By growing and harvesting the microalgae that produce these chemicals we are harnessing the potential of our marine environment in a way that is very clean and green - protecting the natural resource while gaining value from the remarkable diversity the oceans offer.

CSIRO Australia

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